Squeezed in a subway in Tokyo one morning in 1992, I wondered how many fellow commuters had seen the magnificence of underwater life. The previous day I had my first diving experience. I felt humbled witnessing the magic in the water, and knowing that human beings occupied only 30 percent of the planet.
For several years, work kept me away from diving, and I was repeatedly assigned by the UNDP to landlocked countries. I had seen snow-covered Mongolian steppes, sky-penetrating Himalayan ranges, and the barren Afghan-Pakistani border, but I started having dreams of blue oceans, white sand beaches, and warm weather. The dreams came true in October 2014, when I was assigned to the Maldives.
The beauty of the Maldives stirred my long-hibernating diving bug. And it wasn’t long before I took the plunge. With my instructor’s thumbs-down sign, I slowly sank into the deep blue water. Tropical fish look like a classic spring scene in Japan: cherry blossoms whirling in the air. Mantas, turtles, sharks, and colorful fish all swam around gracefully, as if divers did not exist. My 40-minute dive took me back to the humbling feeling I had in the subway.
While the underwater life in the Maldives is stunning, I worry about its future. The corals were bleached badly earlier this year, and the sea temperatures have risen because of the El Niño. When I recently returned to my favorite reef, I felt the number of fish had dwindled. Once vibrant underwater life looked rather dull. I hear horror stories about boats that transport waste from resort hotels dumping that waste in the ocean, even before it reaches the collection point. Plastic bags, ropes, and pieces of Styrofoam can be seen everywhere.
The marine ecosystem, critical to everyday island life, is under grave risk. Coral bleaching affects fish habitat that in turn impacts food supply and peoples’ income. Bleached and damaged reefs can also affect tourism, which can threaten the national economy.
We have to act now to reverse this vicious trend; we have to make the protection of marine life central to development plans.